Panama have never managed to qualify for the World Cup, but that has now changed – and in dramatic fashion too – as a goal from captain Roman Torres sent the little guy to the biggest tournament in the world. Thanks to a surge of new talent, Panama qualified for the first time at the expense of a big name, and will face World Cup veterans Belgium and England in the competition.
Following a fall at the last stage prior to Brazil 2014, this qualification came as a shock to many football fans due to the fact that their place was expected to be filled by the United States. That doesn’t mean this was undeserved; there was a painstakingly close attempt at qualification for Brazil, and some solid performances in the Gold Cup followed, with a semi-final exit in 2015 and a runners-up finish the following year. This, alongside a new coach, Hernán Darío Gómez Jaramillo, who is the former manager of Ecuador and Colombia, have brought the Panamanians a summer to look forward to.
The road to Russia
Panama’s journey to the World Cup can be labelled as one of the most iconic times in the country’s history. The ride was a bumpy one, though. An unbeaten 2016 gave massive hope to the nation of potentially qualifying for the first time ever, but following this, Los Canaleros went six games without a win. A spot in this year’s tournament looked like it was slipping further and further away.
Luckily, a wonderful moment occurred, not just for Panama, but for all the people who love the game for what it is – beautiful. Honduras looked to be qualifying automatically in third place, and the US, who were losing to Trinidad & Tobago, would drop into the playoffs in fourth. Panama needed a win against already-qualified Costa Rica to jump them both, but with a few minutes to full-time, the impending 1-1 draw would not be good enough.
Step up, Roman Torres.
Panama rocketed into Russia just like the ball from Torres into Costa Rica’s net.
How do they play?
Panama tend to look to play the 4-4-2 formation, keeping it classic. Throughout their qualification journey, they relied heavily on veteran players; notably, in their decisive match in the Hexagonal Phase against Costa Rica, only three were under 29 – Fidel Escobar, Edgar Barcenas, and Anibal Godoy. Expect defensive displays from Panama, especially against powerhouses. They will most likely position in a 4-4-2, but can transition into 5-4-1 when without the ball, keeping compact and trying to keep out the likes of Harry Kane and Eden Hazard.
Panama play a game focused on discipline and belief, rather than skill. A very robust side, you can expect to see them be physical with their opponents, but also demonstrate the hope and belief they have running through them. This is a team that is fuelled by a love for their country.
Who is their star player?
Their star player is hard to call. A main contender is obviously defender Roman Torres, an embodiment of Panamanian virtues by being a player full of determination and strength rather than skill. I mean, he is nicknamed “Mazinger” for a body resembling more of a wrestler than a footballer. The best of the Panama team has been in the squad for many years, but a spine of veteran players is combined with a new injection of youth with Ismal Diaz (21) and Michael Murillo (22) being included in the 23-man squad. If Torres is the star player, these guys come close; they were a major help in Panama’s qualification bid, and will look to make a huge first impression when the spotlight is on them in Russia.
How far will they go?
Don’t expect a major run from Panama. Don’t even expect them to finish above fourth in the group. But there is something wonderful about this Panama side. They are full of belief, full of hope, and they’re going to enjoy it. This is their first World Cup, so expect to see everything they’ve got, and some wonderful scenes from both the players and the fans. It’s a tournament for the experience for this country, rather than an attempt to try to win the whole thing.
What should we watch out for?
Watch out for the fans. They are going to come to really support their nation. The fans are fantastic in the World Cup from most nations, but the Panamanians are here for the first time. Expect dancing. Expect a lot of red and Panama flags. Expect tears of joy when the national anthem rings out at the World Cup for the first time. It’ll be beautiful. Trust me.